Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow Turns Waste into Energy in Vietnam

This story originally appeared on the World Learning NOW blog.

By William Shlah, Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow

Shlah-and-familyPrior to my time studying with SIT in Vietnam, I had never heard of a garden, pond, and livestock biodigester system, commonly known in Vietnam as a VACB. However, once I was introduced to the system and other concepts related to sustainable development while studying abroad with SIT, I gained a genuine curiosity and desire to continue working with VACB systems to promote sustainability. During the semester, our group of 12 students worked in conjunction with a local university to construct a VACB system for a local family. It was such a unique and gratifying experience that I will certainly never forget it, and I knew that I wanted to continue working in the sustainable development field. Fortunately, the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship and World Learning made that possible by funding my proposal to build an additional system for a family in need in Vietnam.

Upon receiving news that I would be able to help build a VACB system, it was easy to decide that I wanted to implement the project in Hoa An, a hamlet of Hau Giang province where I had previously worked with SIT. While studying in that community, the local people showed us great hospitality and generosity, which never ceased to amaze us. Whether it was offering a ride on the back of a motorbike up the road, an invitation for lunch, or an offer to share some rice wine with farmers after a day in the fields, the way in which the local people welcomed us into their community was truly heartwarming. Also, knowing that these very same people were often living in quite dire circumstances made their generosity and friendliness that much more poignant. To be afforded an opportunity to learn experientially, create an example of a grass-roots solution, and simultaneously help a family in need was almost too good to be true.

biodigesterFor those who are unfamiliar with the system, a VACB is a locally sourced, pragmatic approach to mitigating some of the negative side effects of development such as environmental degradation, poverty, and community health concerns. Many families in the Mekong Delta implement a farming system with a garden, pond, and pigsty to provide food and a little money from sales at the market. The VACB adds an extra component to that system: a biodigester. This component is essentially a large, heavy-duty plastic stomach that collects the livestock waste and converts it into a harmless cooking gas, fish food, and plant fertilizer. This natural process of organic decomposition eliminates the need for firewood and commercially produced cooking gas. Also, animal waste is responsibly disposed of and does not contaminate the surrounding water systems.

pigsThis trifecta of positive effects, sustainability, poverty alleviation, and education, is what makes the VACB system so attractive and it has really affirmed to me the viability and potential for this system to make a lasting and meaningful impact. Following the completion of construction, I was extremely pleased to see the system working perfectly. The lady of the house, Mrs. An, thanked me and seemed happy with the results. She told me that she no longer has to buy cooking gas or firewood. Also, unexpectedly, she told me that the benefit she was enjoying most was the lightened environmental impact of the system.  Since the waste of the livestock is collected instead of dumped into the local waterways, the odor of the pigsty has improved considerably allowing for an increased livestock capacity. This, I’m told, was a very welcomed improvement amongst the neighbors as well. Another piece of information that I found very encouraging was that the local Women’s Union, which enjoys around 80 percent membership among local women, was actively promoting the VACB system. This gives me hope for the potential of the system to increase in popularity among rural farming households in the area.

Though construction on this particular project has been completed, it is by no means the end of the project. With the knowledge and experience I have gained, I know that I will continue to work to promote and improve the VACB and ideas I learned as an Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow.

Learn more about SIT’s program in Vietnam.

Learn more about the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship.

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